NPR Has a Serious Fox News Problem
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Smart newsrooms develop an ethics code to help journalists do their jobs well, and to create clear lines of demarcation for when inevitable conflicts arise. To its credit, National Public Radio operates under a wide-ranging ethics code that leaves little doubt about how its journalists should conduct themselves.
And yet still, NPR finds itself struggling with the evergreen controversy that surrounds Mara Liasson and Juan Williams, two well-known NPR voices who regularly appear as commentators on Fox News. Last week Politico reported that NPR news executives approached Liasson and asked her to re-think her weekly Fox News appearances. (She declined to cut her contractual Fox News ties.) And in February, the same NPR bosses asked that Williams no longer be identified as an NPR journalist when he appeared on The O'Reilly Factor.
If NPR bosses don't want the network's name associated with The O'Reilly Factor, and if they asked Liasson to re-think her Special Report and Fox News Sunday appearances, then that confirms there's a problem that ought to be resolved. Why else would the issue keep popping up? And the problem is this: A thoroughly respectable and professional operation like NPR has no business associating itself with Fox News these days, by lending its status and credence to an utterly irresponsible enterprise like the one Roger Ailes is running. Consequently, by continuing the association, NPR is doing real damage to its brand and its hard-earned credibility.
The need for action is confirmed by NPR's own ethics code, which specifically spells out why the Fox News-type of alliance is such a bad idea. And yet, at least publically, NPR executives continue to duck the matter. I'm not sure what all the dithering is about, the issue does not appear to be that complicated.
NPR's association with Fox News has been a thorn in the radio network's side for years. From NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, Dec. 8, 2009:
Barely a week goes by without my office getting an email or phone call insisting that NPR tell Mara Liasson or Juan Williams that they should not and cannot appear on Fox News.
And from then-NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, May 15, 2006:
Nothing riles some public-radio listeners like NPR journalists appearing on FOX News television programs.
Maybe if we turn the tables slightly and look at the conflict from a different perspective, the picture will come into sharper focus.
Imagine this scenario: What if NPR currently did not have an association with Fox News and Ailes' team reached out to public broadcasting in 2009, the year Fox News co-sponsored political rallies, promoted partisan conservative PACs on the air, backed hosts who attacked the president of the United States as a racist and a socialist and a communist and a Nazi, passed off a Republican Party press release as its own research (typo and all), and featured a sister website that regularly cheered "Victory!" whenever an Obama initiative failed. Given that media landscape in 2009, would NPR executives today think it would perfect make sense to begin aligning itself with Fox News?
In the year that Fox News seemed to proudly obliterate any barrier between journalism and politics as it morphed into the de facto media engine driving conservative politics, invited fringe conspiracy theorists on air, declared itself the "voice of the opposition," and promoted violent political rhetoric, would executives in charge of protecting NPR's brand and credibility be willing to now begin associating their network with Fox News?
I seriously doubt it.
And yet today, NPR remains publically, and stubbornly, aligned with an organization that makes a mockery of NPR's own ethical standards, a cable outlet whose employees would be summarily fired from NPR for the seemingly countless and chronic journalism transgressions they make.